Plum fire houses struggle to find volunteers
Josh Scalamogna knew from a young age that fire service would be his calling.
Scalamogna, 20, of Plum, joined Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Department five years ago as a junior member. Today he's a lieutenant with that department and a paid firefighter at U.S. Steel's Irvin Works in West Mifflin.
Officials with the fire department on Route 286 are trying to recruit junior firefighters, ages 14 to 18, because for the first time in more than two decades, the department has none, said Chief Larry Glass. Last year, it elevated four junior members to active status, increasing the number to 30 firefighters. The department averages about four junior firefighters a year.
“We need to get young members to join,” Scalamogna said. “The older members won't be around forever.”
Attracting young people to the job can be challenging, said officials with two other volunteer fire departments in Plum. The Renton Volunteer Fire Department has four junior members, said President Anita Maydak. Unity Volunteer Fire Department has two, said Chief Jeff Currie.
“It's tough,” said Rose Schuster, president of Holiday Park VFD. “Not everyone has a desire to run into a burning building. Thank goodness people do that and keep us safe. It takes a special breed of person willing to sacrifice for the community.”
To recruit, the department holds an annual open house and makes school visits in October, Schuster said.It sponsors a $500 scholarship for a high school senior and provides information about a scholarship program through the Community College of Allegheny County.
With the Allegheny County Fire Academy, CCAC offers the Allegheny County Fire Volunteer Education, Service & Training Scholarship program, known as FireVEST, which provides full scholarships for an associate's degree or certificate program.
“Each junior member has an opportunity to complete his or her training requirements set forth by the department and the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy,” Glass said. “Having them ready for the next step is a major accomplishment for each individual. A chief officer is assigned to each junior to monitor his or her progress until they are 18.”
Maydak and Currie said they keep an eye on their young members.
“We do make them adhere to their academics,” Maydak said. “We don't want their grades to suffer. If they have issues, we try to help them. We've had guys tutor juniors.”
Currie said the Unity department holds job fairs, school programs and recruits through “word of mouth.”
“Many of us have our own kids and the junior members are a second set of kids,” Currie said. “We teach them how to be good kids and good firefighters. They are like a part of our family.”
Schuster said some young members bring friends to the department to see the equipment and operation.
Though younger members can't actively fight fires, they can participate in department functions such as bingos and fish frys, Glass said.
Holiday Park is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Construction is under way at the firehouse to add two large bays, a second floor with a full kitchen, day room, training/study room, men's and women's locker rooms and restrooms, laundry facilities, offices and sleeping quarters for 10.
Crews are expected to finish the addition around June, Glass said.
“It's an exciting time for everyone involved with the department,” he said.
To learn more about volunteering, call the firehouse at 724-327-3456, or visit www.holidayparkvfd.org.
Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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